Ember Wednesday in Lent: The Sign for an Evil and Adulterous Generation
Fr. Nicolas Caussin, S.I., confessor to kings, is well-known as the author of "La Cour Sainte" ("The Holy Court"). In his "Entretiens" ("Entertainments") for Lent, some of his sermons for the Season are presented in a devotional format: an examination of the traditional scriptural readings for the day in the Roman Rite followed by the aspirations of the soul thirsty for Christ.
"He answered and said to them, 'An evil and adulterous generation demands a sign, and no sign shall be given it but the sign of Jonah the prophet. For even as Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Ninive will rise up in the judgment with this generation and will condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, a greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with this generation and will condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, a greater than Solomon is here.'" (From the Gospel for Ember Wednesday in Lent, St. Matthew, xii)
It is a very ill sign when we desire signs to make us believe in God. The signs which we demand to fortify our faith are often marks of our infidelity. There is not a more dangerous plague in the events of worldly affairs than to deal with the devils or to play with predictions. All these things fill men with more faults than knowledge. For divine oracles have more need to be reverenced than interpreted. He that will find God must seek him with simplicity and possess him with piety.
Some require a sign, and yet, between heaven and earth, all is full of signs. How many creatures there are, they are all steps and characters of the divinity! What a happy thing is it to study what God is by the volume of time, and by that great book of the world? There is not so small a flower of the meadows, nor so little a creature upon earth, which does not tell us some news of him. He speaks in our ears through all creatures, which are as organ-pipes to convey his spirit and voice to us, but he has no sign so great as the Word Incarnate, who carries all the types of his glory and power. About him only should be all our curiosity, our knowledge, our admiration and our love; because in him we can be sure to find all our repose and consolation.
Are we not very miserable, since we know not our own good but by the loss of it, which makes us esteem so little of those things which we have in our hands? The Ninevites did hear old Jonas the prophet: the queen of Sheba came from far to hear the wisdom of Solomon: Jesus speaks to us usually from the pulpits, from the altars; in our coversations, in our affairs and recreations; and yet we do not sufficiently esteem his words or inspirations.
An overindulged spirit dislikes honey, and is distasted with manna, raving after the rotten pots of Egypt. But it is the last and worst of all ills to despise our own good. Too much confidence is the mother of an approaching danger: a man must keep himself from relapses, which are worse than sins, which are the greatest evils of the world; he that loves danger shall perish in it. The first sin brings with it one devil, but the second brings seven. There are some who vomit up their sins as the sea cockles, to swallow them again. Their life is nothing but an ebbing and flowing of sins, and their most innocent thoughts are a disposition to iniquity. ... We become nearest of kin to Him when his ordinances are followed by our manners, and we live by his precepts.
O, Word incarnate, the great sign of thy heavenly father, who carriest all the marks of his glory and all the characters of his powers: it is thou alone whom I seek, whom I esteem and honour; all that I see, all I understand, all that I feel, is nothing to me, if it do not carry thy name, and take colour from thy beauties, or be animated by thy spirit. Thy conversation hath no trouble, and thy presence no distaste. O, let me never lose by my negligence what I possess by thy bounty. Keep me from relapses, keep me from the second gulf and second hell of Sin. He is too blind that profits nothing by experience of his own wickedness, and by a full knowledge of thy bounties.
Nicolas Caussin, S.I.
La sagesse évangelique pour les sacrés entretiens de carême
(Transl.: Sir Basil Brooke, adapted)